Do readers of e-books sacrifice a sense of 'place' within a text?

A few studies suggest that reading on screens instead of pages may impair comprehension because readers lose a sense of place in a text.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
'Once read, those pages vanish,' writes Ferris Jabr about the way a reader connects with text when using an e-reader.

In a world increasingly shaped by digital technology, are there still advantages to reading books the old-fashioned way – in paper volumes?

Ferris Jabr thinks so.

Jabr’s article for Scientific American, “Why the Brain Prefers Paper,” is included in the  recently published “The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014."

Surveying the latest research, Jabr speculates that reading traditional books allows readers to locate a text within a mental geography. “Much as we might recall that we passed the red farmhouse near the start of a hiking trail before we started climbing uphill toward the forest,” writes Jabr, “we remember that we read about Mr. Darcy rebuffing Elizabeth Bennett at a dance on the bottom left corner of the left-hand page in one of the earlier chapters of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice.’”

This kind of grounding seems more difficult when scrolling a digital text. “Once read, those pages vanish,” notes Jabr. “Instead of hiking the trail yourself, you watch the trees, rocks and moss pass by in flashes, with no tangible trace of what came before and no easy way to see what lies ahead.... At least a few studies suggest that screens sometimes impair comprehension precisely because they distort people’s sense of place in a text.”

But Jabr also notes that digital technology allows storytellers to seamlessly blend text with video and sound clips, something not possible in traditional formats.

Meanwhile, according to Jabr, about 20 percent of all books sold in the consumer market are e-books.

That includes, by the way, the electronic version of the anthology where Jabr’s article on the virtues of paper appears.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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